The ecological emergency collides with the academic culture of universities

Almost fifty-five years ago, in May 1968, students rebelled against the pedagogy of lectures at the university, taught at a distance by mandarins. They had obtained in November of the same year, thanks to the Faure law, to be able to express themselves by participating in the management bodies of the establishments.

At a time when we are reaching “planetary limits”, will the grandchildren of the sixty-eighties get the ecological emergency to trigger an immediate educational revolution? In their eyes, universities are no longer bourgeois, but stiffened in disciplinary structures that are sometimes far removed from the societal issues that have arisen with global warming.

On October 20, 2022, during a symposium at the University of Bordeaux, the Minister of Higher Education gave them pledges, creating surprise, as the subject seemed to have no hold on the institution. Sylvie Retailleau took up the recommendations of a working group chaired for two years by the climatologist Jean Jouzel and the professor of ecology Luc Abbadie, which until then had remained a dead letter. In all disciplines, bac + 2 training will have to integrate the challenges of ecological transition by 2025.

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To initiate this transformation, three working groups around actors from the university community, students, associations, NGOs and think tanks must meet between January 17 and February 7. The ministry tasks them with defining a base of skills and cross-cutting knowledge, constituting a national center of educational resources and imagining a way to promote student commitment to ecological transition.

Optional and ungraded courses

It must be said that the results are meager: out of 75 universities, only 11 can claim the “sustainable development and social responsibility” (DDRS) label, which has existed since 2015. Local initiatives, based on the goodwill of teacher-researchers , are current elsewhere but in an almost confidential way, in the absence of national mapping of the forces present on these subjects.

“We need to show the still reluctant disciplinary communities that it is possible, that it is of interest and that it is not a prescription from above”sums up Mathias Bernard, president of Clermont-Auvergne University, in charge of the ecological transition file at France universities, an association which brings together all the heads of establishments.

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According to an internal survey, nearly two-thirds of universities have already adapted part of their training by creating cross-disciplinary modules or specialized master’s degrees. Lessons that the Shift Project, a think tank created by engineer Jean-Marc Jancovici, considers imperfect. “They are often optional or even not graded, and are not taken seriously, perhaps sometimes rightly, because the content is not always serious”, tackle Clémence Vorreux, co-author of the report “Mobilizing higher education for the climate”, published in 2019 by the Shift Project. The statement appears too broad on environmental issues, only rarely addressing climate-energy issues.

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The ecological emergency collides with the academic culture of universities